Launching the fall auction season against the backdrop of a slowly reviving New York, a Christie’s evening sale of works made during the 21st century brought in $219 million on Tuesday .
All 40 of the lots offered sold. Two works—one by Mark Grotjahn, the other by Felix Gonzalez-Torres—came to the sale with an in-house guarantee, while another 20 were secured with third-party backing. The entire grouping was expected to fetch an estimated hammer price of $150 million–$230 million with premium.
Christie’s auctioneer Gemma Sudlow, head of private and iconic collections, took to the rostrum on Tuesday to lead the sale. She replaced her colleague Christie’s chairman Adrien Meyer, who was tapped to run the New York evening sales last season during the pandemic hiatus. Among the masked spectators in the tightly packed room were dealers Jeffrey Deitch and Larry Gagosian. Although the setting resembled a pre-pandemic auction room, the energy among the crowd and specialists was largely subdued.
The work which fetched the highest price was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s large-scale painting The Guilt of Gold Teeth (1982), which depicts a grimacing skull-like figure donning a top hat amid scrawled text. Coming to the sale with an irrevocable bid, the work hammered below its low estimate of $37 million, going to its lone bidder on the phone with Christie’s chairman Alex Rotter for a final price of $40 million.
A large-scale Peter Doig painting, titled Swamped (1990), sold for $39 million to another bidder on the phone with Rotter. That bidder triumphed over two others from Hong Kong and New York. Featuring a single white boat floating amid pond weeds and tree stumps, the work is from Doig’s seminal “Canoe” series. It had been expected to fetch more than $35 million, and succeeded in doing so. In May 2015, the European collector who sold the work purchased it for $26 million at auction. The result eclipsed Doig’s previous record of $28.8 million, set when the artist’s Rosedale (1991) sold at Phillips in New York in 2017.
Another big-ticket item was Basquiat’s Flash in Naples (1983), which depicts the superhero from the comics series that lent the work its name. The painting had last been exhibited at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in 2020. It went for $19.8 million, hammering above its estimate of $14 million. Before that, it sold for $8.1 million in 2017 at Christie’s, and in 2010 for $3.3 million at Sotheby’s in New York.
Emerging and mid-career artists with burgeoning markets continued to dominate at the Sotheby’s sale. Hilary Pecis’s domestic scene Upstairs Interior (2019) sold for more than 10 times its high estimate of $80,000, finding a buyer on the phone with Christie’s Hong Kong specialist Evelyn Lin for $870,000. That sum more than doubled Pecis’s auction record of $307,600, which had been set less than a month ago at Christie’s London.
The following lot, Nicholas Party’s Landscape (2021), sold for $3.3 million with premium to a bidder on the phone with Hong Kong chairman Erik Chang. That result set a new record for the artist. A record was also set for Stanley Whitney, whose untitled 1999 painting featuring rows of box-like forms of varying shades attracted five bidders hailing from New York and the U.K. It sold for $1.2 million. As with Pecis, it was the second time Whitney’s auction record had been re-set in 2021—the first came in June, when a bidder paid almost $725,000 for his painting Light a New Wilderness (2016) at Christie’s.
A third of the lots offered in Christie’s evening sale were consigned by the same collector. A group of works by Pictures Generation works Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, and Christopher Wool, were sold under the title “Image World”; they were being being sold by New Jersey–based neurosurgeon Abe Steinberger and his wife Cynthia, according to Vanity Fair. From the group, Barbara’s Kruger’s Untitled (Your Manias Become Science), 1981, set a new record for the artist at $1.2 million. Together the 13 works generated a collective $36.5 million.
One of the sale’s unconventional lots drew some of the night’s most spirited bidding. For the sale, NFT artist Beeple produced a physical work titled Human One. The work is a seven-foot-tall sculpture composed of LED screens that display an astronaut strolling through a dystopian landscape; it also comes with an NFT. Four bidders competed for the work, which hammered for $25 million, outpacing an estimate of $15 million. It went to an online bidder in Switzerland for final price of $29 million.
Behind-the-scenes financial machinations sealed the fate of a number of works in this sale, effectively putting a damper on the energy at this white-glove sale. But bidding occasionally grew more spirited thanks to competition coming from Hong Kong.
Christie’s purpose with this sale was twofold: the house used its season opener to further facilitate bidding from different continents, and to catch up to its competitor, Sotheby’s, in transforming the evening sale into a tech-forward venue complete with screens tracking bidding and displaying lot details. The change in atmosphere was felt in Sudlow’s opening description of the stage that was updated with digital frills. “You might notice that things look a little bit different in the James Christie’s room,” Sudlow said, calling the sale an “immersive event.”